Two 19th-century communal groups sought utopia in the wooded hills of southwestern Indiana, where their structures now blend with modern architecture.
By Joe Zentner
The book Utopia, written by British statesman Sir Thomas More and published in 1516, described More’s idea of a perfect society. Communal living without individual possessions was the order of the day, and everyone worked for the good of mankind. The word “utopia” eventually came to be a generic term that applied to all concepts of ideal states.
As a utopian concept, New Harmony, Indiana, is unusual. In this southwestern Indiana town two separate groups of people practiced certain ideals that flourished among 19th-century visionaries.
The first was religious. George Rapp was 56 years old when he came to Indiana from Pennsylvania. Originally from Germany, he had become convinced in his native land that the Promised Land could be achieved through fruitful labor and by practicing celibacy. In 1804 Rapp founded a community of religious pilgrims in Pennsylvania called the Harmonie Society. But the place was “too cold to raise vine,” and winemaking was a skill the people had brought with them from Germany. Eventually their thoughts turned to the Wabash River Valley.
In 1814 Rapp and his followers came to Indiana Territory to prepare a place for the second coming of Christ and the establishment of the kingdom of God on Earth. In the wilderness they laid out a village. The Harmonists built homes, mills, and dormitories, and planted formal gardens, fields, and orchards. By 1824 more than 150 structures had been built. The group marketed more than 20 products to buyers as far away as Pittsburgh and New Orleans. Cultural amenities rivaled those found in European cities.
Industriousness made the community thrive. But religious communalism does not thrive on prosperity, or so Father Rapp concluded. Detecting what he perceived to be signs of restlessness among his flock, Rapp decided that the group needed to sell everything and start over again in Pennsylvania. He feared, however, that his opinion alone might not be enough to convince people to move.
At about that time, fortuitously, the angel Gabriel “appeared” and agreed with him. Gabriel left giant-sized footprints on a limestone slab as “proof” that he had visited Harmonie.
Rapp sold the town, including the stock on the farm, to Robert Owen, a businessman from New Lanark, Scotland. Like Father Rapp, Owen had a utopian dream. But Owen’s utopia was social and intellectual in nature, not theological.
Owen had come to Indiana to begin a great experiment. The town was rechristened “New Harmony” and a constitution was drawn up. Everyone was to labor and property was to be owned in common. He signed the sale papers in January 1825.
The 800 believers in a new world order found the first summer quite pleasant. The Harmonists’ crops provided abundant food; life seemed good.
In the fall of 1825 Owen journeyed back to Scotland. When he returned to New Harmony in early 1826, he brought with him some of the most gifted people of the day, including Charles-Alexandre Leseuer, a French naturalist; Madame Marie Duclos Fretageot, a French educator; Gerard Troost, a Dutch geologist; and Frances Wright, an early feminist. Their pioneering contributions to education, geology, trade schools, and women’s suffrage eventually would have national impact.
Owen, however, seemingly suffered from an inability to stay focused on a job long enough to see it through to completion. Before long he was off to Washington, D.C., to tell America about his noble experiment.
Owen exhibited to government dignitaries, including President John Quincy Adams, a model of the town he intended to build. He proposed to create a society wherein women could vote and public education would be available to all. Neither of these objectives existed in America at that time. But Owen went further. He planned to “remodel the world entirely, by abolishing money and private property.”
Meanwhile, back in Indiana, matters were deteriorating. Some people protested the community’s absence of any religious worship; others were unhappy with the scheme that called for communal care of children. Moreover, the last of the Rappites’ cattle had been slaughtered, and the community, in violation of Owen’s plan, was purchasing food produced outside of its environs.
Owen journeyed to Scotland again, and during his absence New Harmony deteriorated further. By 1827 when Owen returned, he quickly deduced that the experiment was over, and with one stroke of his pen he dissolved the enterprise.
The eminent geologist William Maclure had joined Owen as a financial partner in 1826. After Owen left, Maclure persuaded serious scholars to remain in New Harmony and pursue their interests. For years the town was a center of intellectual innovation. However, by the time of the Civil War, New Harmony was just another farming community.
The town’s unusual significance and importance to history was never forgotten, and buildings were saved in the years that followed. In 1948 Kenneth Owen, a descendant of Robert Owen, bought the Rapp-Maclure House, the residence of Father George Rapp, and later renovated it.
Preservationists intended for New Harmony to become a place where people could develop a heightened appreciation of America’s heritage. In 1965 the town of New Harmony was declared a National Historic Landmark. Today New Harmony welcomes thousands of visitors at its Atheneum Visitors Center. Historic sites are open to the public, as are other important structures.
New Harmony’s theme is reconciliation “” the unity of opposites. As if to prove the point, two space-age structures “” the Roofless Church and the steel Atheneum “” bracket New Harmony’s streets. The Atheneum is a salute to the future and serves as the visitors center. Stop there first to enter the Clowes Theatre and view a 17-minute film called The New Harmony Experience. The movie is presented on the hour and prepares visitors for their journey into the past. Then visitors may walk the quiet streets.
A guided walking tour is offered twice each day and leaves from the Atheneum Visitors Center. It includes several locations, such as the Salomon Wolf House, where one can see a diorama of the town as it appeared in 1824. In the 1830 Owen House, decorative arts from the Owenite period are displayed.
The guided tours are available daily at 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. and cost $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, and $5 for students ages 7 to 17.
Other sites can be seen aside from the tours, such as the boxwood maze. The shrubbery labyrinth was intended to be a reminder of the purpose for man’s existence. At its center stands a small stone temple. To reach this peaceful haven, one must negotiate paths and blind alleys that are lined with boxwood. These passageways are as full of twists and turns as is a mortal life on the journey to eternity.
A rounded dome of pine shingles called the Roofless Church is the work of architect Philip Johnson, who has described the shape as “an inverted rosebud casting the shadow of a full-blown rose.” In Paul Tillich Park, the noted German Protestant theologian is interred in a grove of red Norway pine trees. A path leads to the gravesite.
New Harmony is acknowledged as having one of America’s first kindergartens, trade schools, drama clubs, women’s organizations, and free public libraries. It was headquarters for an important United States’ geological survey, which was essential to opening the Western territories.
Thousands of people come each year to a setting that features the Wabash River, a glimmer-glass lake surrounded by bicycle paths, and the gabled timbers of yesteryear. New Harmony is a monument to the past, bearing the imprint of a spirit that moved minds and sought perfection. It is well worth a visit.
Historic New Harmony
P.O. Box 579
New Harmony, IN 47631
New Harmony is located at the intersection of Indiana state routes 66 and 68. From westbound on Interstate 64, exit at Poseyville (exit 12); from eastbound on I-64, exit at Grayville, Illinois (exit 139); then turn south on State Route 1 and east on State Route 14.
Historic New Harmony is open from March 15 to December 30.
1014 Main St.
New Harmony, IN 47631
This is a town-owned campground with 20 sites (no size restrictions). It has 30-amp hookups and a dump station. No reservations are taken; first-come, first-served.
Harmonie State Park
3451 Harmonie State Park Road
New Harmony, IN 47631
This campground has 200 sites with electrical hookups and no length restrictions.
Vanderburgh 4-H Center
201 E. Boonville-New Harmony Road
Evansville, IN 47725
This campground has 31 sites; six have full hookups and 25 have water and electrical hookups. It is located at an events center capable of hosting a variety of functions.